July 24, 2018

Frustrated by Gridlock, House Members Propose Rules Overhaul

WASHINGTON — Trying to ease gridlock in Congress, a bipartisan group of frustrated House members is coming forward with a rules overhaul intended to give rank-and-file lawmakers more say.

The proposal, to be formally unveiled Wednesday by the House Problem Solvers Caucus, also seeks to rein in hard-right Republican forces in the chamber that have wielded significant influence over the majority party in recent years.

Under the plan, the ability of one representative to essentially force a vote of no confidence in the speaker would be eliminated. That threat from members of the House Freedom Caucus led to the resignation of Speaker John A. Boehner in 2015 and is seen as a way that just a few members can handcuff the speaker.

Instead, the so-called motion to vacate the chair would be replaced by a process in which one-third of the House would have to publicly sign a petition to force such a vote.

The rules proposal was drafted over months of negotiation among the 48 members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is equally split between Republicans and Democrats. It would institute new standards for the automatic consideration of legislation with strong bipartisan support. The authors believe the plan, which has the backing of at least 75 percent of the group’s membership, would foster more bipartisanship and incite debate on major issues that are being sidelined by political considerations.

“Due to the House floor being controlled by a select few, most members of Congress are not able to bring their ideas and proposals to the House floor for a fair vote that would allow us to begin solving some of the most contentious issues facing our country today,” said Representative Tom Reed, Republican of New York and a chairman of the group.

The group stopped short of getting behind another idea being raised by outside advocates — requiring the successful candidate for House speaker to secure votes from the minority party. Members of the group struggled with how to structure that proposal in a way they felt was workable.

But under the overhaul, the person elected speaker would have to have support from a majority of all members of the House, regardless of how many are present and voting.

In situations where the divide between the two parties is close, internal divisions could make achieving that goal difficult, forcing consideration of a more consensus candidate. No matter which party wins control of the House in November, the split between the two is expected to be narrow for the new Congress convening in January.

Given that expected divide, members of the Problem Solvers Caucus believe they can use their leverage to win adoption of some of the proposals in the rules package written for the next Congress. They say they intend to try to enlist lawmakers outside their group to support the plan and note that many members of both parties believe they are being shut out of House decision-making.

Many of the proposals are aimed at ensuring that legislation with broad bipartisan backing gets an airing in committees and on the floor. Under the proposal, any bill that gains at least 290 co-sponsors or a majority of support from each party would have to receive committee review and be sent for floor consideration in 30 days.

Members of both parties have complained that Republican leaders, fearing political fallout and attacks from the right, refused to take up legislation that would easily pass with the combined support of Republicans and Democrats. (Changes in immigration law are a notable example.) But House Republicans have, for the most part, operated under an informal standard that says that only bills that can attract a majority of Republican support should be considered, severely constraining the agenda.

“We’ve seen time and again how our common sense solutions get jammed up in a system built to empower the voices of a few extremists,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey and a chairman of the group.

The proposal is certain to meet resistance from leaders of both parties who do not want to see their power diluted. Considerable authority has been concentrated in the House leadership suites in recent decades, and senior lawmakers want to remain in control of both the floor and the committees.

But members of the Problem Solvers Caucus say the low public standing of Congress is evidence that significant changes need to be made. They say the current moment is the time to push the proposal because it is uncertain which party will control the House next year.